Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Happy Father’s Day to all fathers and father figures, both male and female here today! I am remembering my dad who as many of you know was a storytelling preacher, a professor of Philosophy or religion and a seminary president. He often preached on Romans and memorized many passages from it for his preaching. This passage brings me memories of him. I can hear Dad reading it in my mind. I can hear the rhythm of the cadence and inflection of his voice. And I remember him reading it with such passion. Not being a tall man he would rise up on his toes in excitement as he preached or read scripture, as if he was going to make a basketball goal just as he did in high school when he was captain of the team and they won state. Holding his soft-covered, leather pulpit Bible up in his left hand, he might paraphrase a bit to reiterate his points saying...”Because we are justified by our faith, set right with God, through Jesus and so have access to God’s peace and grace...” As the meaning of the text became more intense he rose higher on his toes reaching the highest point at “and hope does not disappoint us!” Then he would come down and lean in with the punch line, “because God's love has been poured [big pouring motion with his right hand] into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
This text was not about false, feel good sentiment for Dad. It was not a happy-clappy message. God will make everything fine for us if we just believe in the right way. For Dad, Paul’s message was life-changing news in the midst of the very real lives of the people he was addressing, in the midst of their sorrows and tragedies along with their joys. This message brought ultimate meaning and purpose to his life so he was passionate to share it. I do not remember all of his exegesis. The legacy he left is the memory that my Dad was/is a friend of God. He once told me, shortly after my mom’s death, and after at least 60 years of preaching God’s good news, that when he died his hope was that he would learn to love as God loves.
That’s an aspiration, isn’t it? To learn to love as God loves. I know Dad had glimpsed that in many ways while he was here with us in this life. I trust he is learning it more fully now. And I have to ask myself, do I have this aspiration? What about us here in this faith community? Do we want to learn to love as God loves here in the midst of our lives? Do we want to at least catch glimpses of this selfless loving? And in doing so be friends of God?
In this passage from the letter to the Romans, Paul acknowledges that he and the early Christians lived in very trying times. At times he wrote his letters from prison. They knew the danger of persecution. Yet Paul’s conviction is that God is utterly faithful just as God was to his ancestor, Abraham, and in God’s action in the world through Jesus, as well as the sending of the Holy Spirit. To be justified, to be set right with God through our trust in God, is to know God as Friend.
Paul tells us that even in the midst of suffering we stand in God’s grace and share in God’s peace because God is our faithful friend. Take a moment and ponder this. In the midst of your personal lives, here at Plymouth in our communal life we stand in God’s grace and peace. Because we have been justified, set right with God through our trust. We can rejoice with Paul trusting that God befriends us before we even befriend or trust God back.
We can rejoice with Paul because like him we know the heritage of the Hebrew Scriptures tells of God the Creator and God the Spirit moving across the waters of creation. Because, like Paul, we experience the faithfulness of God in Jesus, the one who lived among us, who was crucified by the sin of the world and yet through whom God conquered death in the resurrection.
The articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity came generations after Paul’s writing. Yet implicit in his testimony here in Romans is the Holy One-in-Three, the Holy Three-in-One, the mystery we name the Trinity. One unified God who has three faces or three windows of revelation into the hugeness, the unfathomable nature of the Divine. Knowing that God is faithful friend simplifies this mysterious and often confusing human-made doctrine of Trinity for me. I think of one of my closest earthly friends and the many different roles she plays in my life, comforter, challenger, care-giver, confronter and I understand the different faces of God as friend.
Paul tells us that to be justified by faith is to be friends with the flow of Love that we know as God, that we envision as the community of the Holy ONE – Earth-maker, the Source and Creator of All, Jesus, the Pain-bearer, who came to share our common lot, who bears with us the weight of this world, and Spirit, who continues the Life-giving movement of hope and deepest joy even in the midst of suffering. In deep friendship with the Holy One-in-Three, we can say confidently and without shallow sentiment that our sufferings can produce endurance and endurance character and character hope, no matter what situations life brings. Then we know in the midst of sorrow or joy the glory of God and we can in the best sense of the word boast of, share joyfully, without arrogance, but with the strength of humility, God’s peace and grace because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.
Sometimes mysteries are best understood through looking at them through the corner of our eyes in story.
On the very real mountain and peninsula named Mt. Athos in northeastern Greece, a place of 20 monastic communities comprising one large Easter Orthodox monastery, there is one monastery that was the smallest of all, the Lesser Monastery of the Holy Trinity. It holds only three monks and one lay porter. It is difficult to get to being high up on a cliff. The path to its door is steep and winding and windy. The small door to the monastery is always open and leads you into a sunny courtyard with plants blooming throughout the year. When a pilgrim enters, the person finds a small bench to sit on. Old Gregorio, the porter, lets the pilgrim sit in silence for a time as he peers through a small window to get a sense of the person. Eventually he emerges to sweep the courtyard and shyly ask the pilgrim questions such as “Where are you from?” Or “How was your journey?” Then he silently slips away and returns with one of the monks.
If he returns with Father Demetrios, the eldest monk, an old man with a long white beard, the monk sits right next to the pilgrim and begins to talk immediately. His voice is rich and deep. His words flow like honey from a comb, words of welcome and wisdom. He always seems to know just how long to talk for when he stops the pilgrim will spill forth their own words of confession, contemplation, of doubt and faith, words coming from the heart and sometimes with tears.
If Old Gregorio brings back Father Iohannes the interaction is very different. Father Iohannes is a rather round middle-aged monk with curling brown hair and warm eyes. He sits on a chair in the sun, just across from the pilgrim on the bench and looks deep into their eyes before closing his own eyes to sit in the sun in silence. From time to time he might look at them again. The silence is companionable, but it can last all morning...even into the afternoon. The pilgrim is always the one to break it, finally pouring forth their story. In the end Father Iohannes who has listened intently, gazes at the pilgrim with the deep, silent love of a brother and then simply gives a blessing.
When Old Gregorio bring forth the third monk, the pilgrim encounters a beardless, young man, Father Alexis. He looks lovingly into the face of the pilgrim with the clear, guileless eyes. His own face becomes a mirror for what he sees in the pilgrim’s face – sorrow and grief, frustration or anger, confusion, the joy of learning and asking questions. When he speaks, it is from the deepest yearnings of the pilgrim’s own soul and holds the wisdom of God that is within.
Most pilgrims stay the night and when they leave in the morning they pass by the Icon of the Trinity that is the little monastery’s greatest treasure. In it sit three figures in a loving circle, breaking bread with one another – a white headed, white bearded old man, a curly, brown-haired, smiling man of middle age and a young man with a clear face who seemed to gaze beyond his companions and into the eyes of the beholder. This is the same icon that Old Gregorio says his prayers in front of early each morning, crossing himself three times, praying for the wisdom to direct each pilgrim who might visit that day to the monk the pilgrim’s soul most needs.
For those who seek this smallest of monasteries on Mt. Athos, they would do well to remember it is more a place of heart than of the map. And that the monks and old porter are waiting patiently within a space of prayer and image. And that the Lesser Monastery of the Trinity could just as easily hold an elderly, but energetic housekeeper named Georgiana, an abbess named Mother Demeter who writes beautiful poetry and songs, an earthy, ginger-haired middle aged woman, a healer, named Joanna and a young, lithe woman with blond hair and keen green eyes, a weaver of tapestries who is named Alexis, meaning helper, like her make counterpart.
God comes to us as friend, creating us anew, bearing our pain with us, empowering and emboldening us to act on our deepest loves. This is the mystery of the Trinity. And this is the message of the apostle Paul who believed he was set right by God’s friendship, given God’s peace and grace and love poured into his heart. This is the friendship that empowers all we do in acts of social justice, acts of caring for one another, acts of welcoming the stranger, of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, acts of worship and fellowship and study and prayer. This friendship empowers ALL we do. Do you accept it? The friendship of this larger than life, abundantly overflowing Holy One-in-Three, Three-in-One God? It is freely given.
Amen and Amen.
Jane Anne is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
Easter 5, Year C
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
1 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' 8 But I replied, 'By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.' 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man's house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, 'Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.' 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
Hal and I jokingly call this story “The Great Apostolic BBQ.” God uses Peter’s image of all those squirming animals in that sheet to make a revelatory declaration, “Everyone is invited! Ya’ll All Come! No one and nothing is unclean and excluded!” This is a pivotal story in the narrative of the book of the Acts. So pivotal it is actually told twice in the Acts of the Apostles. We have just heard the second telling from Acts, chapter 11, that occurs as Peter gives account of his experiences in Joppa and Caesarea to the burgeoning community of the Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem. You can read the whole story happening in “real” narrative time in Acts, chapter 10. It's not too long, and worth the read, because this story is a game changer for our earliest Christian ancestors.
In Peter’s holy vision he is invited to eat things he has never imagined eating. And he is justifiably horrified as a good Jew who works hard to keep the dietary laws of his time in as a sign of his faithfulness to God. Despite his shock and horror at being invited by God to completely reverse his dietary thinking, Peter pays attention. Something is up. As we heard, he is soon led to understand that his vision is really not about the menu of his next backyard BBQ. It is about God’s inclusive Spirit. God is inviting and commanding the followers of the Way, those faithful Jews following Jesus, to reach out farther than their Jewish community to include all of humanity as God’s people. God is inviting this new community to share the good news of God revealed in Jesus the Christ with everyone.
His startling and disturbing vision gives him an inkling of meaning when the men, most likely Gentiles, maybe soldiers, from the man, Cornelius, show up inviting Peter to the home of this Roman centurion. He and his companions are essentially invited into the camp of the “enemy. ” Though Cornelius is known as a God-fearer, a Gentile seeking the God of the Jews, he is still a Gentile who does not keep the purity laws. He is not a circumcised Jew. He is not one of them. He is also employed by the oppressor of the Jewish people, the Roman empire. Peter and his companions must have thought, “What in God’s Name.....literally....is going on?” Yet they trust Peter’s vision given by the Sprit and they go to Cornelius’ house where the inclusive work of the Spirit is confirmed when Peter hears the story of Cornelius’s vision of the angel. Confirmation really sets in when all the household receives the Holy Spirit just as Peter and the other disciples had on the day of Pentecost. Gentiles are receiving the Holy Spirit of the Almighty, the God of the Jews! God is truly making a new thing! A miraculous thing! A thing of compassion and expansion and love! Peter and his friends understand and rejoices!
After this miraculous experience, when Peter and company return home to Jerusalem they find a not so welcoming community of believers. Their companions following Jesus on the Way do not immediately recognize this new thing God is doing. There’s no “Atta boy” or Good Job” for sharing God’s good news, for helping an entire household into the family of the Risen Christ.....just horror that Peter broke all the laws of purity by dining in a Gentile household. “How could you eat with those uncircumcised people?” From our point of view this may seem so narrow-minded! But we are not part of an oppressed people who has fought form generations, through slavery and exile time and again, to retain faithfulness to God and to one another in order to preserve our way of life and our religion and our very lives. Even though they have received the good news of God through Jesus, old ways die hard. Its that whole domino effect. One broken link in the tradition and belief chain can bring the whole structure tumbling down. And now they are not only under the Romans thumb but are also seen as suspect by the Jewish authorities for following this renegade rabbi, Jesus. No wonder they react first with fear.
If I were Peter, I know I would be really angry and hurt by their question. I might lose my cool and started arguing, quoting scripture to prove my point as I pointed out their complete narrow-minded pin-headedness. And the impulsive, brash fisherman, Peter that we know from the gospels may have been tempted to do that. But Peter seems to have learned through listening to his life – to his fear-based betrayal of Jesus after Jesus’ arrest, to the tragedy of crucifixion and then the inexplicable joy of the empty tomb, to his personal experience of the Risen One. His faith has been transformed. He has learned that “stories, not arguments change lives.”
Step by step he leads his community through the story of this amazing transformation God is offering, implying with each turn in the story, “This is God’s doing. Not mine. It could have happened to any of you. You could be the messenger as well as me.” He says to them, In the midst of it all “I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' If then God gave [these folks] the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" And in the silence that follows his story, The hearts of the believers in Jerusalem are transformed. Their minds are changed.. Their faith and its practice is altered from then on throughout the book of Acts. Gentiles are included.
This is a timely message for us, is it not? As we seek to bridge divides in order to bring about God’s realm in our world. As we seek to invite all people, and particularly, those often uninvited in our wider community, into fellowship and service with us and with God. This is a story about the leadership, power and ultimately grace of God found in talking across divides, breaking down barriers that separate us as God’s people! This story is foundational for the ministry we do together as part of the Plymouth family of God because of its message of inclusion and because it teaches us to share our stories of faith.
“It is hard to argue or split theological hairs with a compelling story” Yet as progressive Christians we often shy away from telling our own stories of God’s work in us partly because we know the power of story. We know that story can be used for transformation or to manipulate and twist the facts if used in the wrong ways. We know its power to heal or to distort. And we want to get it right!
We may not tell our personal faith stories of transformation because we do not want to appear manipulative or better-than-thou or self-righteous. Because we cannot find just the right words to speak of the holy, numinous moments that have changed us. Because we don’t think we have all the theological answers that we should have.
I am telling you this morning/evening, my friends, .... you ALL have at least one, and probably many, stories of being transformed by the loving power of God to share. God’s world needs your stories. Our faith community needs your stories, your children and grandchildren need your stories, the children and youth in our Christian Formation programs need your stories. The people in your neighborhood, in your office, at your school need your stories of being transformed in faith. The people who enter our doors through the Homelessness Prevention Initiative/Neighbor to Neighbor program and through Faith Family Hospitality need your stories. Those of you who work in our wider community through our immigration advocacy ministry teams, or Habitat for Humanity, and in our newly forming Stopping Gun Violence ministry team need your stories. We need your stories of stunning insight or quiet revelation, your stories of transformation where, like Peter, mistakes were made before new life was revealed.
For example, I can tell you a brief story of mistakes before revelation....I was 19 and had just finished my freshman year in college. A church youth group friend came to me saying, “I’m thinking of being gay. What do you think?” “Being gay” was hardly on my radar screen at this point in the mid 70’s. I knew that as Christians we loved everyone. I didn’t know the ethics or theological specifics about “being gay.” I didn’t even know that there were scripture passages that could be considered prohibitive. All I knew to say was, “What ever you decide, I will always love you. I think as a Christian you should investigate what God says about it.” Not bad advice on the surface. Unfortunately, being the mid-70’s in Missouri there was not too many places he could go for investigation. He took my my advice literally and that led him into a very conservative Christian group that tried to “cure” him. By the time I found out about this, I had a very different perspective on “being gay.” I had close, close friends who were like brothers, struggling with being Christian and being who they were made to be in the image of God as gay men. I know that I am not God and not responsible for my high school friends faith journey. But like Peter after his betrayal of Christ this memory of my youthful naiveté stings. What pain did my advice lead him into? For a long time now I have understood that all of us are made in God’s image, gay or straight or bi or transgendered or non-binary gender, I have been an open proponent for God’s message of love for all. We are all in the sheet from Peter’s vision together. Now if I were asked in a similar situation, “What do you think?” I would say, I love you just as you are. And I think you should know that God loves you just as you are and made you just as you are. You are fearfully and wonderfully made.
How have you experienced the transforming love of God for you and for all humanity and creation? God’s transformation does not have to come in big dramatic visions and prayers, or dramatic events and moments. It also comes in conversations, reading, day dreaming, serving, parenting, teaching. It is as likely to come in the midst of a work day as in the wonder of the wilderness. Moments so real....then fleeting. Did that just happen? Yes, it did. God is speaking to each of you. Listen and remember. How have you been transformed by faith? What comes to mind? Pay attention to what first comes to you. Then go deep. Make some notes on your bulletin. Think about this for just a moment – 30 seconds to be exact. (Pause)
Now you know there is at least a germ of a story of God’s work made manifest in you. As Peter did, go and tell and rejoice in God’s good news! Who are we to hinder God? Amen.
1) Stephen D. Jones, “Homiletical Perspective on Act 11.1-18”, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 2009, 453.)
2) Ibid., 455.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019 and beyond. All rights reserved.
Jane Anne is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
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